While Don Brown spoke to the media in Schembechler Hall on Friday afternoon, senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson walked down a hallway about 20 yards over Brown’s shoulder.
As Hudson began to walk out the door and onto State Street, he paused, flashed a smile and pointed at Brown, bestowing a gesture of “You the man” on his defensive coordinator.
This is, after all, how just about everybody inside these halls feels about Brown. And it’s why — after losing eight defensive starters from a year ago — Michigan has no shortage of confidence in its defense.
“When you look at coach Brown’s track record, I would argue he’s the best defensive coordinator in the country,” said offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. “He’s constantly produced top defenses year in and year out, no matter where he’s been.”
Regardless of the man in charge, losing eight starters, including all four along the defensive line, poses a daunting challenge. Brown, though, has been through this before. “(After) last season was really like a picnic (compared to) after the ‘16 season, in terms of changing guys,” he said. And like it did then, Brown’s adjustment has come down to finding schemes that work with his new personnel.
Solidifying schemes is even more important in Brown’s defense than in most. Gattis, in his first month practicing against Brown’s defense, said the toughest challenge his offense faces every day in practice is that the Wolverines don’t just run their base defense, instead alternating between three and four-down fronts and displaying an array of blitz packages, even in spring practices.
That ability to mix and match packages to his personnel, though, has helped Brown mitigate the impact felt by Michigan’s losses from a year ago.
“I think this is gonna be an interesting group defensively,” Brown said. “We may be a little different, because we may have more guys like, ‘This guy’s good at this, that guy’s good at that.’ So you might have to piece it in a little bit like that, but that’s the fun part.”
In the linebacker corps — a group Brown called “unbelievable” on Friday despite losing Devin Bush to the NFL Draft — mixing and matching is less of an option, as Brown said he wants to find his top three and stick to them in most situations. But in the front four, the Wolverines will have to be more flexible than they were last year, when Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich could slot in at defensive end on nearly every down.
Gary’s midseason injury, though, provided a peak of what could lie ahead this fall, at least at one defensive end spot.
“We found out last year, through injury,” Brown said, “that we were able to, between (junior defensive end Josh Uche) and (sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye), we’ve got first, second-down production out of Kwity and third-down production out of Josh, which was an exciting thing for us.”
This year, those types of splits will become more common, with Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall, Michigan’s two interior starters for much of last year, also gone. Beyond Uche and Paye, Brown remained mum on exactly what those splits will be, but Carlo Kemp, Michael Dwumfour, Mazi Smith, David Ojabo, Donovan Jeter, Aidan Hutchinson and Ben Mason were all listed by Brown on Friday as part of the competition for snaps — potentially a deeper group than last year’s, even if it lacks the first-round edge-rushing talent of Gary and Winovich.
But whatever the personnel combinations, Michigan’s confidence in its defense remains as persistent as ever. And for that, it has one man to thank.
“I remember all the headaches coach Brown would present when you game-planned against him,” Gattis said. “Imagine doing that for 15 (spring) practices.”